This battle of the eras pits the old vs. the new and myth vs. reality

June 16, 1991|By Rich Hofmann | Rich Hofmann,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- In the stands at Veterans Stadium today, they will give out hats reminiscent of the good old days. On the field, the Phillies and Reds will wear old-style uniforms modeled after what they wore in 1957 in an attempt to recall the glories of a bygone era.

The fashion of today is to run down the ballplayer of the '90s and to put the old-timer and his game on a pedestal. We look at salaries today, learn more about players' off-field exploits than ever and draw conclusions about their playing ability based on that extraneous stuff.

It just doesn't seem fair sometimes. And if you want to, you can look through both sides of these rose-colored glasses.

Old hat: The old days were better because you had the great old ballparks, like Ebbets Field and Connie Mack Stadium, not the plastic palaces of today. It was a pleasure to go to a ballgame in the old days.

New hat: If those days were so much better, and the game was so much better, and the old ballparks were such a pleasure, then how come the average National League team drew 1.1 million fans in 1957 and more than 2 million last year?

Old hat: That's just marketing. The real fans know what I'm talking about. I mean, look at the pitching today.

New hat: What about it?

Old hat: Nobody has enough pitching anymore. When they expand to Miami and Denver, those poor slobs will take a decade, at least, to put together a decent pitching staff. Look at all the old guys who can find work on the mound these days. In 1990, the NL had 11 guys who were 35 or older who pitched in at least 20 games. Eleven! Just about everybody had an old guy. Back in 1957, there were only four guys like that in the whole league.

New hat: Yeah, yeah. But look at the bottom line. Last year, the league's average ERA was 3.79. In 1957, it was 3.88. Today's guys are better.

Old hat: Be serious. The pitchers today are worse by almost any measure.

New hat: Walks aren't much different.

Old hat: Yeah, but what about complete games? Complete games are off the charts. There were 356 back in 1957. There were only 200 last year -- 200 complete games in a bigger league with a longer schedule. That's ridiculous.

New hat: It's not ridiculous. It's just a sign of the increased importance of relief pitching today. That's all it is.

Old hat: Bull. Today's players are soft. They're too rich and too lazy. That's what it shows.

New hat: Bull. That's the tiredest argument I've ever heard. Is your hat too tight, or is that senility creeping in? Today's players are every bit as tough as the old players were.

Old hat: Prove it.

New hat: Fine. Back in 1957, how many iron horses were there in the NL, guys who played in, say, 140 games that year? How many? Twenty-two, not quite three per team. And now, take last year. With the longer schedule, we'll toughen the standard. How many guys last year played in 147 games? How many? Thirty-three, not quite three per team. Exactly the same percentage of iron horses.

Old hat: But what about the hitters? I mean, look at the home runs -- 1.91 per game in 1957 and only 1.56 per game last year.

New hat: Bigger ballparks, pal. Fairer ballparks. There are very few really cheap home runs in the National League anymore, not like the old days.

Old hat: What about strikeouts? Check it out: 9.98 per game in 1957 and 11.49 per game last season. That's a big jump. Guys are swinging at air these days. They just don't have the discipline anymore. They just didn't learn their trade in the minors. Everything is rush, rush, rush. You've got Triple A players in the major leagues these days, and expansion will just make it worse.

New hat: That's another one of your favorites. Well, using the average team ages in The Sports Encyclopedia -- Baseball, you can see that the average position player in the NL last year was 28.66 years old. In 1957, the average position player was 28.5 years old. That's right, those experienced, well-schooled players the old days were a tiny bit younger than the raw, rushed rookies of today. Figure that.

Old hat: But what about the strikeouts?

New hat: Well, what about the slider? What about the relief pitcher? It's just tougher to be a hitter today. And don't give me that stuff about playing in twilight in the old days. They played a lot of night games in 1957. And besides, what's worse for a hitter, a guy who's thrown 115 pitches in the shadows or a fresh Lee Arthur Smith in the ninth inning under the lights?

Old hat: OK. Let's talk playing conditions. The NL batting average in 1957 was .260. Today -- even though you have all of those artificial-turf base hits -- it's lower, only .256.

New hat: Weren't you listening? Sliders. Relief pitchers.

Old hat: Yeah, yeah. How about fielding? Even with the big gloves today and the true hops on the turf, double plays are down more than 15 percent per game from 1957. Guys just can't make the plays anymore. Guys just don't pay attention to the little things that win games.

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